BECKY NURSE OF SALEM Is A Muddled Witch’s Brew — Review
Salem, as those who have been conned into spending their 31st of October there by Big Halloween will tell you, is not a very spooky town. It’s mostly just like any other dreary Massachusetts suburb, rife with Dunkins’ and the run-down vibe of large-scale opioid addiction. The titular character of Sara Ruhl’s latest play, Becky Nurse of Salem, which just opened at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater, attests to as much. Vividly realized by recent Tony-winner Deirdre O’Connell, she’s a harried tour guide at the local witch museum, upset by the academics mishandling her hometown’s legacy. An imaginary descendant of Rebecca Nurse, who was hanged for witchery in 1692, she believes the town’s real history to lie within her, and not in the possibly misinformed plaques describing historical sites. The often engaging work, however, does not allow her ample enough room to prove this to us.
Much of that problem stems from a case of multiple overburdening. Ruhl’s foreword, printed in the theater’s lovely program (available for $1), gestures at our current sociopolitical zeitgeist: Our former president, while encouraging supporters’ chants to “lock her up,'' called criticisms leveled against himself a witch hunt; The Crucible was probably more about Arthur Miller’s guilt about wanting to fuck Marilyn Monroe (she of Blonde fame) than about the Red Scare. That none of this really makes it into the plot is largely okay, but feels forced when it does, as when vague 2016 newsreels pop up to hit us over the head (presumably protected by pink pussy hats) with vague relevance.
But nevermind that, as the structure itself is beset with more problems than the town’s historic women. The story is anchored by the well-written—and, through the incomparably committed O’Connell, well-performed—Becky, who accuses her uppity boss Shelby (a savory Tina Benko) of fake feminism when she fires her for going off-script. This upending will complicate her ability to pay the hospital bills for her teen granddaughter, Gail (Alicia Crowder), whose depression, slowly building since her mother’s death from opioid addiction, led to a recent stint in the psych ward.
Down on her luck and unable to find a job, Becky seeks help from a local witch (Candy Buckley, making laugh-out-loud meals out of her ridiculous New England phrasing). For a fee, she helps Becky land bar-owner and high school flame Bob (Bernard White), separate Gail from her new beau Stan (Julian Sanchez, anxiously hilarious), and secure the museum’s Rebecca Nurse mannequin for her own tour guide business. Only the last of these successes is compelling.
The other two, however generic, are treated like the opening moves of a lengthier miniseries and crowd out Ruhl’s main exploration of Becky. There is a fascinating character detail around the character’s history of pill abuse, the effects it might have on her mental health, and any connections to the biological theories as to why the Salem witches might have gone mad that she mentions. Becky’s fractured mindset lends itself to possible flights of magic, and her arguments with her boss bring to mind questions of who should run a local museum, who carries history, and how. Instead, these are left half-baked as the play diverges into a trite domestic dramedy with tenuous connections to the playwright’s stated intentions, which are sporadically evoked or resolved through an unsteady reliance on magic.
The witchiness is fun, but magic is an unrewarding deus ex machina the further it strays from Becky’s lane; the more it insists on developing a suburban soap opera with side characters and uninteresting B-plots, the less satisfying the improbable payoffs become. With her plight and fight as fascinating as they are, and with O’Connell playing Implacable Boston Broad to the high heavens—note the way she describes her desire to pick a flower with down-to-earth disgust—there is no need for further padding. Aside from her, Stan, Shelby, and the witch are the work’s most alluring characters, not just because their respective performers have actual personalities to play, but because they reflect Becky’s own internal turbulence like funhouse mirrors—each of them could feasibly exist entirely in her imagination, which somewhat trumps logic in driving the play.
A shorter, more streamlined piece might have been more evocative and politically dynamic. Rebecca Taichman’s direction, though successful with her actors, fails in its many transitions. Untheatrical and unprepared, they see a scene’s final word triggering a shift into another before forcing us to sit and watch the cast awkwardly shuffle furniture for 30 seconds as in a high school production. The waiting is damaging, as are Palmer Hefferan’s sound cues, which at one point include Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” when Becky is beckoned to include her own fluids in a witch’s brew.
There is a lot to find interesting in Becky Nurse of Salem, not least of which are the performances of O’Connell, Benko, Buckley, and Sanchez. But as it struggles to integrate heavier themes of feminism and social hysteria, it winds up a lot like the North Shore town in its title: a paved-over promise of might once have been magic.
Becky Nurse of Salem is in performance through December 31, 2022 at Lincoln Center Theater on West 65th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.